Friday, August 14, 2009

"The King" of Memphis Wrestling Books

Posted By on Fri, Aug 14, 2009 at 3:09 PM

Ron Hall's new book Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling, is one of the best collections of black and white sports photos I've ever seen and a hell of a lot of fun.

The old Ellis Auditorium in the convention center was the site of wrestling matches in the 1950s and '60s that drew crowds of 5000 people to watch the heroes and heels take their falls. There was Johnny Valentine, who bled a lot, Farmer Jones, who brought a hog into the ring with him, and Dick the Bruiser, who played football for the Green Bay Packers. There was Lou Thesz, who was handsome and as successful at promoting as he was at wrestling, and the Swedish Angel, who was bald and looked like he had had a lobotomy. There was Gorgeous George (in photo), who came out in a dress, and Scotty Williams, who wore a tam, and Bonnie "Butch" Boyette, who looked like Wild Bill Hickock and wore a string tie and boasted of having 242 stitches in his head. There was Bobo Brazil, who opened the door for black wrestlers. There was Kurt Von Brauner, who spoke German and never seemed to understand the referee although he attended Whitehaven High School in Memphis, and Princess Little Cloud, who looks like she couldn't have thrown your kid sister, and Haystacks Calhoun, who was bigger than The Mighty Jumbo.

There was no cable television in these days, and wrestling would not move to the Mid-South Coliseum for almost two decades. Promoters relied on gimmicks and fights with police and the crowd that might or might not have been staged to generate coverage. A match between Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks drew 13,000 people to the old Russwood Park.

The introduction to the book is written by wrestler and mayoral candidate Jerry Lawler, who recalls interviewing Tojo Yamamoto when he was a disk jockey and asking him if wrestling was fake. "His unexpected and lethal reaction was to reach across both microphones and slap me. He then asked me, 'was that fake?' "

The book draws from a matchless collection of black and white photos from the collection of Robert W. Dye and the period programs from Jay Woods and Main Event Promotions. The project was edited by Sherman Willmott of Shangri-La Projects and designed by Tara McKenzie, an art director for The Memphis Flyer.

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